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Home arrow Sociology arrow Bourdieu and Social Movements: Ideological Struggles in the British Anti-Capitalist Movement

British anti-capitalism: a new wave, a new conflict!

Anti-capitalism in Britain is as old as capitalism itself. As Marx and Engels famously claimed in the opening line of the manifesto: 'The History of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles' (Marx and Engels, 1985 [1848]: 79). Conflict between the different ideological sections that comprise British anti-capitalism is not new either. The famous arguments between Marx and Bakunin and the subsequent collapse of the First International are testament to this (Gouldner, 1982). However, what we saw at the start of the 21st century was a new wave of British anti-capitalism, it was a veritable upswing in contention against neoliberal globalization. This wave of British anti-capitalist mobilizations did not happen in a political vacuum, it had been building since at least the 1980s (chapter 1). In the UK, it was the British anarchist anti-capitalist networks, such as Earth First! and Reclaim the Streets, that were first on the scene. They were very much part of this cycle of contention and kick-started the British wave of anti-capitalism. They were not only involved in British actions but also allied themselves with the Zapatista community in Mexico in the 1990s and, even today, some activists are involved in humanitarian projects in that region (Kingsnorth, 2004). They saw their struggle as a global one against consumer capitalism and the concomitant exploitation of people and the environment. They were transnational in their perspective and very much 'thought globally while acting locally'.

Earth First! UK and Reclaim the Streets were the 'early risers' of this wave; they emerged circa 1991 (Traugott, 1995). For over ten years these groups were mobilizing against what they saw as neoliberal capitalist expansion both at home in the UK and in the global south. Their critique included analyses of how late modernity led to ever increasing demands for energy, using the earth's finite resources to serve an unnecessary consumer demand, which in turn causes wars and is damaging the ecology of the planet. As one Earth First! activist put it:

There are these large pieces of metal hurtling around a high speed in residential areas. They are such a menace to life and limb that every journey made by any other means is chiefly spent dodging these monstrous objects. They are the single biggest cause of atmospheric pollution and global warming. They are the largest market for the warmongering oil industry. Their noise is the noise of the city. These 'cars' are so central to the organization of work that an illusion has to be maintained that nobody sees anything wrong with the ever increasing number of cars. (Control, 1991: 5, cited by Wall, 1999: vii)

At the same time they recognized that public space was constantly being subjected to market forces, including being privatized and branded - in effect, a de facto colonization of public space by corporations permitted by the state. As a response to this, the said groups carried out actions to try to subvert the established consumer capitalist order. Guy Debord's (1995 [1968]) and the Situationists' politics and writings were an obvious resource and powerful influence for these anti-capitalist anarchist groups. Like the Situationists, Earth First! UK and Reclaim the Streets often used humour and other tactics to disrupt and redefine thought and space. For example, they held street parties on motorways or in city centres - sometimes in an attempt to try to end what they perceived to be the 'dominance' of the motor car, or to make shoppers aware of their routine consumption (Wall, 1999). Their aim was to make people stop and think, and possibly reflect on their lives. They wanted to bring attention to the fact that we have been under the colonization of consumer capitalism for some time. The drain on resources to fund consumption was central to their arguments, which were linked to oil, war and, ultimately, to our own alienation.

Some famous direct action events included the anti-road campaigns at the Bath Easton bypass in 1993, the M3 extension at Twyford in 1994, and the Newbury bypass in 1996. These British protests in the 1990s have been documented extensively by McKay (1998), Wall (1999), Jordan (1998) and Plows (1998, 2004). In June 1999, Reclaim the Streets and Earth First! launched a 'Carnival Against Capitalism' in London, this was part of a larger international protest rally to coincide with the G8 summit meeting in Cologne, Germany. Carnival activities took place, including samba bands, marches throughout the city advocating food not bombs, a spoof newspaper - Evening Standard - was produced and distributed to workers claiming that the market had had a meltdown. Less than 10 years later this came to pass in 2008. Critical Mass, who are a spin-off anarchist group of cyclists, brought the city to a standstill by enjoying a bike ride through the streets. Their main tactic is use of the flash mob, whereby they cycle on roads that they believe to be colonized by the motor car. The political practice of these groups is rooted in general anarchist, DIY politics, and surrealism a la Situationism.

In 2003, at an Earth First! UK meeting, a new network was created called Dissent! This was primarily in readiness to protest against the G8 summit meeting at Gleneagles, in Scotland, UK, planned for July 2005 (Harvie et al., 2005), and partly in response to the political space gained by Marxist socialist organizations, which could claim they had had some success through the anti-war mobilizations and anticapitalist events they had organized (George et al., 2001). After the Dissent! network had mobilized against the G8, another network - No Borders - emerged. Although No Borders has existed in parts of Europe since 1999:

in the UK, people first used the name No Borders in London in 2005. In March 2006, the London group hosted the first UK No Borders Network gathering at The Square, a squatted social centre in Holborn. Since then, different groups and individuals have come and gone, but there has always been a UK network in one form or another.1

Although No Borders is not purely an anarchist network, it is strongly informed by anarchist ideology and practice. It was set up to struggle against what the group considered to be another facet of power linked to capitalist exploitation. To illustrate this point, they claim:

No Borders is a network, not an organisation. There is no 'general assembly', 'central committee' or other centralised structure.

No one can claim to speak for 'No Borders' as a whole____ No

Borders is an anti-capitalist movement____Many, though not all,

people in the No Borders network also think of ourselves as anarchists. We believe that a world without borders must also mean a world without states. And we see the struggle against border controls as one part of a fight against all forms of exploitation and domination, whether that means domination by governments, companies, or in our everyday relationships. We believe in putting our politics into practice right now, by striving to organise ourselves without hierarchies or 'leaders'.2

It is also the case that the social centres movement enjoyed a renewal in the UK around the same time, again clearly informed by autonomist and anarchist ideas. There is a clear overlap in political involvement of all the networks mentioned: No Borders, Earth First!, Reclaim the Streets and Dissent!

Social centres, as developed in Italy, are rooted in post-industrial interpretations of resistance. Hardt and Negri, for example, explain the structural changes that the Italian economy underwent in the 1970s, which included the move from 'industrialization (albeit incomplete) to informatization' (2000: 288). The structural changes included the change in the regime of accumulation from Fordism to post-Fordism. These structural changes are synonymous with the idea of flexible accumulation that is a feature of neoliberal countries. As Mudu (2004: 917) argues: 'the changes in production relations led to the disappearance of traditional public spaces and meeting places such as open squares, workplaces, party offices or premises of those involved in the antagonistic anti-capitalist movement'. Social centres are not just for the purposes of radical and critical debate against capitalism, but also to offer an alternative to the corporate 'colonization of lifeworld' (Crossley, 2003b; Habermas, 1987) in terms of cultural events and activities, such as alternative films, books and music. It is felt by autonomist activists that corporations in the neoliberal era dominate space by building malls, and other outlets that constrain choice by offering only a sanitized, standardized neoliberal corporate package. The social centre movement is an attempt to create space outside of the corporate enclosures apparent within many cities today. While it would be simplistic to generalize on the nature of social centres, since they differ from each other, Mudu (2004: 922) does, however, outline some key features that are common to most. First, sometimes they are squatted and defined as 'squatted spaces not places'. Second, they self-produce and self-manage social political and cultural events and adopt all relevant decisions in (usually) weekly meetings open to the general public. Third, to finance their activities they mainly rely on funds collected by selling low-price snacks and beverages during these events. Fourth, they have formed a network based on similar political affiliations.

The anarchist-inspired groups mentioned do not have a fixed membership base. It is quite common for people to be involved in one or more of these networks at any one time. The organizing of these networks comes from consensus-based decision-making, and there are general guidelines for people who wish to participate. These guidelines are based on those that emerged during the formation of the People Global Action in 1996 at the first encuentro and are always open to negotiation.

 
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